Goalie Ray Emery
was a hard man to miss when he stood between the pipes for his first Syracuse Crunch practice of the season Monday.
It wasn't just the way he effortlessly flicked shots into the corner, or absorbed shots into his pads the way a paper towel soaks up water.
"You can just tell he's had that experience at a high level. There wasnt a whole lot of rebounds around his net today," Syracuse coach Mark Holick
noted after practice.
No, Emery stood out even to the untrained eye with his neon orange paddle and orange-tinged mask, remnants of his tenure with the Philadelphia Flyers
It was a fluky yet appropriate coincidence, since orange happens to be one of the hues of the Crunch's parent team, the Anaheim Ducks
"The colors work," Emery joked.
If all goes as Emery plans, the fit between him and his new organization will be an even better match in a couple of weeks.
Monday's one-hour workout marked Emery's return to a professional hockey practice for the first time since a bad hip injury forced him out of the game about a year ago. Holick said he'll likely back-up for the Crunch at Adirondack on Wednesday and make his Syracuse debut this weekend. The Crunch hosts San Antonio on Friday and Rochester on Saturday.
"Not having seen professional shots in awhile, I felt OK, but not great," Emery said after Monday's practice. "I feel in shape. At the same time, it's a better quality shot. You have to get your timing back."
Even before practice started, Emery was ahead of that challenge in one regard. He set his alarm for 6:30 a.m., but, too excited about his return to competition, his eyes popped open 15 minutes ahead of time.
"It was one of those days when it was easy to get out of bed. I got up before the alarm clock," he said.
Emery signed a two-way deal with Anaheim last week. He skated in 29 games with the Flyers last season, going 16-11-1 with a 2.64 goals-against and .905 save percentage before the hip injury ended his year.
The initial concern focused on a groin injury. An exam revealed something much more serious and career-threatening. His right hip was afflicted with avascular necrosis, a disease where poor blood supply kills the bone tissue. Emery said the right hip was on the verge of collapsing.
"It's not ideal news to get," he said of his reaction. "Hearing news like that was kind of an eye-opener."
The ailment was the same one that ended the career of baseball and football star Bo Jackson. Emery philosophically pondered whether his career might be over.
"I wouldn't want to give it (hockey) up for anything," he said. "At the same time, it isn't the end of the world. I'm comfortable with myself away from the game."
Emery doesn't have to stare down that reality just yet. Surgery grafted a small piece of bone from his right fibula into his hip, restoring strength to that area. Because the fibula is a non-weight-bearing bone, Emery said he has no problem twisting or turning on his right leg.
A summer and fall of rehab followed, and Emery has been working out on the ice three or four times a week for the past two months. He had been skating with the Brampton Battalion of the OHL.
"It was one of those days when it was easy to get out of bed. I got up before the alarm clock." -- Ray Emery
"It was long. You have to be here. You have to be there. You have to get your rest," he said of the recovery. "It's very regimented. I was given a plan, and I stuck to it."
If Emery continues to play it out, he could push for a promotion from his current No. 3 spot in the organization. As entrenched as all-star Jonas Hiller
has been with Anaheim, he's coming off a fatigue-related trip to the IR.
"I just want to make the most of it, help whatever team I'm on," said Emery, who took Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007.
Eli Wilson, Emery's goalie coach, doesn't see Emery too far away from contributing at his former level.
"I see him very prepared for the next step in this challenge," Wilson said. "I don't see it as much of an adjustment going from what we're doing now to facing pro shots on a daily basis. It's just a matter of evolving your game and adapting. I think it all should come back pretty quickly."
For now, Emery is much more near-sighted when it comes to a timetable.
"I'm not worried about one day as (much as playing) 16 days in a row," he said of the upcoming grind. "I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. But I don't think it will take that long to get back on my feet."